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British skier sets Antarctic record, first woman to cross continent alone

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - British adventurer Felicity Aston finished her Antarctic crossing on Monday, becoming the first woman to ski across the icy continent alone.

She did it in 59 days — ahead of schedule — pulling two sledges 1,744 kilometres from her starting point on the Leverett Glacier on Nov. 25.

"It feels amazing to be finished and yet overwhelmingly sad that it's over at the same time," Aston said in a phone call she broadcast online from her tent while waiting for her flight out.

She announced her achievement by Twitter: "''!!!Congratulations to the 1st female to traverse Antarctica SOLO.V proud," after reaching Hercules Inlet on Antarctica's Ronne Ice Shelf.

Aston also set another record: the first human to ski solo, across Antarctica, using only her own muscle power. A male-female team already combined to ski across Antarctica without kites or machines to pull them across, but Aston is the first to do this alone.

Aston, 34, grew up in Kent, England, and studied physics and meteorology. A veteran of expeditions in sub-zero environments, she worked for the British weather service at a base in Antarctica and has led teams on ski trips in the Antarctic, the Arctic and Greenland.

But this was the first time she travelled so far, so alone. She worried beforehand that the solitude could pose her biggest challenge. In such an extreme environment, the smallest mistakes can prove treacherous. Alone with one's thoughts, the mind can play tricks. Polar adventurers usually take care to watch their teammates for signs of hypothermia, which is easier to diagnose in others than yourself, she said.

This Antarctic summer is the centennial of Roald Amundsen's conquest of the South Pole, and every Briton knows how R.F. Scott's team arrived days later, demoralized to see Norway's flag. Scott and his entire team then died on its way out, and some of their bodies weren't found for eight months.

Aston had modern technology in her favour: She kept family and supporters updated and received their responses via Twitter and Facebook, and broadcast daily phone reports online. She carried two satellite phones to communicate with a support team, and a GPS device that reported her location throughout.

She also had two supply drops — one at the pole and one partway to her finish line — so that she could travel with a lighter load. Otherwise, her feat was unassisted.

While others have travelled farther using kites, sails, machinery or dogs (which are now banned for fear of infecting wildlife with canine diseases), she did it on her own strength.

She worked her way around deep crevasses, slogged up and over the Transantarctic Mountains and fought headwinds across the vast central plateau to the South Pole. Then she turned toward Hercules Inlet, pushing through thick, fresh snow, until she reached her goal, a spot within a small plane's reach of a base camp where the Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions company provides logistical support to each summer's expeditions.

With skies clearing Monday, Aston tweeted that she's been promised red wine and a hot shower after she gets picked up by the plane and taken to the camp on Union Glacier. "Reporting the weather every hour so that the plane will hopefully come and get me later today. Luckily it's a lovely day," she said.

From there, she'll join dozens of other Antarctic adventurers on the last flight out, a huge Russian cargo plane that will take her to Chile. Then she will fly home next week to Kent, in southeast England.

After two months of little but freeze-dried food, she can look forward to chicken pie, her mother said.

"I think there will be lots of cuddles, lots of hugs, it will be quite emotional," said Jackie Aston, 61.

While Aston pondered her achievement in her last hours of solitude Monday, she shared more of her thoughts in a phone report.

"It's all a little bit overwhelming. After days and days to get here, I seem to have arrived all in a rush. I don't really feel prepared for it," she said. "I can't quite believe that i'm here and that i've crossed Antarctica, just over 1700 kilometres, just under 1,000 nautical miles, 14.5 degrees and 59 days and here I am.

"I'm just going to sit here and enjoy these last precious moments on my own, and running through my mind all those days behind me. I remember all the bad times, sitting in my tent, thinking 'what on Earth am I doing?', but despite all that, this has been the most amazing privilege, to have the opportunity to do this, and just a huge thank you to all those people who made it possible."

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